Meltdowns & Anger

How to Manage Your Child’s Temper — Before It Flares

Children benefit from learning to wait for rewards and letting go of desires that are not reasonable or healthy. This is especially difficult — and important — for kids with ADHD.

Mother of boy with ADHD at supermarket, not sure how to control his impulsive temper tantrum
Mother of boy with ADHD at supermarket, not sure how to control his impulsive temper tantrum

We’ve all confronted those dreaded candy displays oh-so-conveniently located at the checkout counters in grocery stores. How often must parents exert control and say “NO!” when “Oh, why not,” is much easier than facing a potential temper tantrum in front of everyone waiting in line. Any parenting magazine at the same checkout counter will taunt us with “10 Easy Ways to Set Limits with Kids.” Not so EASY for me.

You may be asking yourself: “Why not be flexible? Why not give in?” While the occasional flexibility may be in order, the gift we can all give our children is to teach them that life has boundaries. Setting clear limits are of great comfort in the long run, especially to children who have no perspective on how impulsive decisions will affect them.

Earning Rewards Is Critical — Especially for Kids with ADHD

As adults, we have the responsibility to teach children that (as your mother and mine often said) life is often “not fair.” Children benefit from learning to wait for rewards and letting go of desires that are not reasonable or healthy. Through occasional frustration, they gain the ability to tolerate situations that do not go their way. If we indulge every whim, they cannot learn to manage frustration in a healthy, mature way. Life becomes more demanding as they grow. Helping them “earn” special treats and wait for rewards is the beginning of helping them to deal with their own sense of competence.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

A child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), however, is a special case in which a present “want” is intensely compelling. While each child is unique in their capacity, waiting for anything is more difficult for these children (and adults) who must exert greater effort to control feelings of all sorts. When things don’t go their way, the child may go from calm to frantic in a flash.

Many children with ADHD are also obsessive and unable to “let go” of a particular thought. If they have swimming in mind, for example, but can’t be taken due to an unexpected thunderstorm — prepare for a meltdown. They will not forget any promise made, or even any expectation that exists only in their imagination. Memory can play tricks on us if the desire for an outcome is very, very strong.

How Can a Parent Diffuse ‘I Want It!’ Meltdowns?

No magic answer exists. It is a skill to be developed over time through trial and error, and by reading books, seeking professional advice and asking other parents or relatives. Armed with information you can then try different approaches to discover which methods work best for you in your family.

While growing up, children with ADHD will often be faced with disappointments of all types — not just being refused the occasional toy. They may also need to cope with not being treated well by friends, not getting a part in a school play, realizing their sibling ate the last piece of cherry pie, or that their best friend is moving away — or the job they applied for didn’t work out — any reality that confronts them on a daily basis that just feels…bad.

[Free Download: How to Neutralize Your Child’s Anger]

How to Help Your Child with ADHD Cope

  • Control the environment. Don’t set up situations that are bound to be over-stimulating and stress-filled for your child, such as taking them grocery shopping at 5:30 after a long day, or staying at a family party until the wee hours of the night. This is age-dependent, however, and can be adjusted over time.
  • Control the outcome. Don’t be afraid to leave a situation that you can see is going to be a conflict for the child. Learn to read the “writing on the wall” about the potential for disappointment. For example, a teenage cousin is probably NOT going to invite the fifth grader to join their friends when they leave grandma and grandpa’s family event, so make sure to depart before the opportunity to feel “left out” arises.
  • Set limits, and stand your ground. Don’t argue about situations you know the child understands already, but continues to ask you about – “But why can’t I (have that, do this, go there, etc.)?” State your limit, stay calm, and acknowledge their feelings: “I know you are disappointed, but your plan is not going to work for me.”
  • Teach patience. After a tantrum or argument has settled, talk to the child about how to wait for what they want, or how to plan for what they feel they need, or how to have alternatives that are almost what they imagined.

[Meltdowns Happen. Here’s How to Respond.]

  • Minimize frustration. Offer strategies for handling “big” feelings after disappointments, such as talking to a grownup, playing a fun game, relaxation techniques or playing with pets. Positive self-talk (“Maybe next time I’ll win the game”), time and calming down can help them develop a new plan or just let go of something they wanted.
  • Validate their efforts. Notice and comment on the times your child is willing to “let it go.” Acknowledgment of growth in being able to deal with unfairness and disappointment goes a long way in reinforcing good patterns.

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is exactly one of our biggest challenges. It’s getting better (no need for a special adult to go out and get her from recess), but it continues to be a challenge. Some days/situations there’s more flexibility than others. Looking for more insight and wisdom on this issue. If only I could stand in her shoes, I might have better understanding. She sometimes calms herself-reading is a big one. We’ve talked about strategies but she says talking about the fun thing she is missing only makes it worse.
    Would love to hear other parents’ experiences.

  2. I wish I had a magic quick fix to offer – but sadly, that is not the case. Improvement is possible though, with two ingredients: consistency and time. When I speak of the “time” part of the equation, it is highly unlikely that the time required will be measured in days or weeks – and probably not even in months. With one of my children, it took at least 2 years to begin to see improvement – and 3 to 4 years to see any real change in the behavior.

    Maintaining consistency for that length of time can be a daunting task to say the least. However, the importance of that particular lesson makes it worth the effort. Being able to accept “No”, without going to pieces is an essential life skill. I can’t imagine anyone trying to navigate through adulthood with every disappointment certain to send them spiraling into an abyss.

    So this is the method: the minute a child whines, begs, or throws a tantrum, any reward is totally off the table. When my son was very small (2-3 years), I would just pick him up and leave – whether we were in a store, at the park, at a friend’s house, or whatever, the fun was over and we left. If I needed to shop, I did it later without him.

    As he got older, I was able to explain my policy: “If you whine, beg, or tantrum, I PROMISE YOU that you will not get the item you are wanting.” I told him that if I gave in, it would teach him to throw tantrums – and I was not willing to do that. I explained that even if I were ready to grab that toy and put in in the cart, a tantrum from him, would make me return it to the shelf immediately. Let me assure you that he often cried and wailed, “No Mommy, it WON’T teach me to throw a tantrum!” But I just reminded him that I had promised – and that was one promise I considered sacred.

    It was a long road – and there were times that I thought the emotional breakdowns would never end. But eventually, he learned to rein in his emotions when disappointed – at least outwardly – because he knew for certain, that whining and begging meant that he would most definitely not get the object of his desire.

    So dig in your heels and hold tight to your resolve. The battle can be won; and it is worth it. Because eventually, you have raised an adult who is better equipped to deal with the realities of life.

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